THE LONG GOODBYE
The Mountaintop at the Young Vic theatre, directed by JMK award winner Roy Alexander Weise, is a play about how best to use one’s time on earth. In this sense, as so often with the programming at the Young Vic, it walks quietly hand in hand with A Man Of Good Hope, currently on in its main house.
Here the play imagines the last few hours of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, just before he is gunned down on April 4th 1968 on the balcony of his Memphis hotel. On the surface, it may be seen as a paean from playwright Katori Hall to her hero, but such a conclusion is reductive, as proved by this re-imagining here. The title of the play is taken from King’s last speech which he gave in Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers. In the play, as King works late into the night on another speech, we see him spar with new maid and coffee bearer Camae as they discuss everything from non violent protest to King’s wife with a little bit of flirting along the way.
It is often acknowledged that Camae is inspired by Hall’s mother, who, being denied the chance to meet King when she was fifteen, now gets to in her daughter’s fictionalised account. There’s more to the play than this though and Alexander Weise and designers Rajha Shakiry (set) and Lizie Powell (light) tease out some of the play’s more subtle qualities: crushed pinks and peaches remind the audience of a mausoleum or crematorium and Camae loiters like an apparition in the far corner onstage even before the work begins. But as the play’s end shows, this is neither just a memorial to King or an attempt to continue him by trying to write like him. Rather, it’s a reminder perhaps of values lost or being lost, and a plea from Hall and the creatives to keep carrying King’s “baton.” Unashamedly, it’s a wake up call.
But first, to get to that point, is like walking through a maze of conundrums. It’s raining, according to the stage directions, though we only hear the rain. King’s need to urinate, commonly seen as Hall’s attempts to normalise King is made absurd when Gbolahan Obisesan, as King, pees into nothing whilst growling about how America has “gone to hell”. His smelly feet too, Alexander Weise seems to indicate, are a result of his marching, rather than just some presupposed “human frailty.” What about King’s flirting with Ronke Adekoluejo’s Camae as they discuss more serious subjects like Gandhi and the like? Well, when Camae poses suggestively on King’s desk, it might be send up: we are not meant to take it seriously. What about the often brought charge that Hall seems to be undermining stereotypes whilst actually shoring them up? The observant among the audience have the chance before the play has begun to have a sense about Camae, so that is how that problem is solved. Right from the upshot then, complete with missing rain and urinal, we can see that this play is not naturalistic and never plays with our assumptions that it may be so.
Some of the time Camae spends on stage waiting for the big reveal with the audience watching is not quite solved. But it’s worth the wait when we finally get to these parts of the play. When a man’s got to go, a man’s got to go, the play seems to be saying. One has to “drop the baton” and this isn’t failure, only inevitable and admirable.
King, in his last speech and in the play here, reveals he got to the mountaintop, but not over it. We see why in the video design by Nina Dunn. It’s because the mountaintop is ever reinventing itself, like a regenerating volcano (George Dennis’ musical choices at the top of show tell us this). The wheel of discrimination and persecution seems to get bigger. There might always be a mountaintop and always a baton for each and every one of us to carry. And, inevitably, the time will come when we are forced to drop that baton. It’s a real lesson in wisdom and humility, as the play’s last breath illustrates. King may have bowed out, but the stage is still there, lit in melancholy spirit. It is the start of a long goodbye.
Both Gbolahan Obisesan as King and Ronke Adekoluejo as Camae give exhilarating performances in this flawed, but beautiful and worthwhile play. Alexander Weiss and his creative team makes us look at it anew.
The Mountaintop runs until the 3rd November at the Young Vic theatre